Britain's unravelling

The expenses scandal is a blow to the entire political establishment

Britain's unravellingGiven British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s reportedly paralyzing fixation on the smallest details of running a government, it is perhaps fitting that he was brought to the brink of his political demise because of a bath plug. Well, that and a toothbrush holder, a box of matches, horse manure, a chocolate Santa, moat cleaning, and a duck house—not a duck blind, a place where hunters conceal themselves while shooting ducks, but a structure where ducks can shelter in case they’re cold. Or maybe wet.

These are among the things that British MPs have charged to taxpayers under rules that permit them to claim for expenses supposedly related to the performance of their parliamentary duties. And while sticking the taxpayer with the bill for an ice cube tray or a souvenir mug from the Tate Modern museum strikes most Britons struggling in the midst of a recession as outrageously miserly, many of the abuses were much costlier.

Members of Parliament are allowed to claim expenses on a “second home” so they have a place near Parliament to work, in addition to a primary residence in their constituencies. Several MPs made tens of thousands of dollars by charging for upgrades and renovations to their second homes and then quickly selling them. Others didn’t live in their designated second homes, but rented them out for a profit. One MP claimed expenses on a “second home” only eight miles from his first. Another charged expenses for a house that is nowhere near her constituency or Parliament. For a time, Gordon Brown charged taxpayers for two “second homes.”

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A few of the expense claims may be criminally fraudulent. But most, however dubious, are not, because MPs didn’t lie about them. As a police source told a British newspaper, “If someone has claimed £10,000 to clean a moat and used the money to get the moat cleaned, that is not fraud.” In fact, given the astonishing number of MPs who filed them, these expense claims appear to have been an accepted and unquestioned benefit of life as a British politician. And this is what has people in Britain so upset.

The British accept that their politicians are human. They will make mistakes, shout and lose their temper, maybe drink too much. But this scandal has lifted the veil hiding a parallel politicians’ world of entitlement, built with the money but not the consent of British taxpayers. A glimpse inside that world has infuriated Britons and weakened their faith in their democratic institutions and the people who run them. “The expenses scandal has been a massive hit to the whole British political establishment—an unexpected, once-in-a-generation, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime hit to the British political class,” Tony Travers, a political science professor at the London School of Economics, told Maclean’s.

“There is a real sense that it’s shaken loose the moorings that hold this place together,” Francis Elliott, deputy political editor of the Times of London, said in an interview. “It’s felt quite scary on occasion. Ultimately, it looks like it might well claim a prime minister.” Already, six ministers have resigned, and another dozen MPs have quit or announced they will not run again. The Labour Party has suffered its worst result in local elections since the Second World War. The racist British National Party has won two seats in the European Parliament. And the speaker of the British House of Commons has been forced to resign for the first time since 1695.

Like so many political scandals, this one started with an access-to-information request.

In 2005, Heather Brooke, a journalist and freedom of information campaigner, took advantage of a recently passed freedom of information bill to ask Parliament to reveal details of MPs’ expense claims. House of Commons authorities objected. MPs voted to exclude themselves from the relevant act—though the amendment was withdrawn because peers in the House of Lords would not support it. More political wrangling ensued. But eventually Commons authorities announced that all MPs’ expenses would be disclosed in July.

Details began leaking out well in advance of the scheduled release. These provoked public indignation and some amusement. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, for example, charged taxpayers for pornographic films her husband rented. But these revelations were only a sputtering stream of water dribbling through a leaky dike—not much on first glance, but a foreshadowing of the deluge to come.

The flood hit when the Daily Telegraph newspaper somehow got hold of a full copy of all the expense claims—including, the newspaper alleges, information that would have been omitted when expenses details were made public. It began publishing this information in carefully managed instalments beginning May 8. For MPs fearing exposure, the tension must have felt like being watched by a sniper but not knowing when or if he might pull the trigger.

“The Telegraph’s technique of picking off a few MPs each day, emailing at noon, giving five hours to reply, recording the conversation, not allowing them to speak, telling them they are going to publish anyway, amounts . . . to a form of torture and may have serious consequences,” Conservative MP Nadine Dorries wrote in May. “No one can deny the right to expose this, but any decent human being can question pushing individuals to the brink of despair.”

David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, rebuked Dorries for her comments and apologized to British voters. Other party leaders have expressed similar remorse. None can claim the moral high ground, because all the parties are implicated. “Their troughs might be different in the sense that it’s duck houses with the Tories, and on the Labour side it’s more of a pathetic chiselling of a couple hundred quid here and there,” says Elliott. The result is widespread public revulsion. Despite his irreverent columns, Simon Hoggart, a political sketch writer for the Guardian newspaper, does a fair amount of public speaking in which he typically defends politicians as hard-working and more or less altruistic. “It’s a hard pitch to make these days,” he says. “The sense of outrage astonishes me.”

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been hardest hit. This is partly due to his typically lame response to the scandal. When citizens were howling for blood, Brown promised greater bureaucratic scrutiny. “You’re not going to stitch that on your banner and go marching under it, are you?” asked Hoggart. Brown failed to capture and reflect the public mood.

Brown also suffered from being in charge when Westminster’s long-running shell game with taxpayers’ money was finally exposed. That these abuses went on before he was prime minister doesn’t matter. “Ultimately, this happened on his watch,” says Elliott. “It’s an incumbent factor. And it feeds into this narrative that he’s tired, clapped out, shorn of any moral purpose or authority. He just looks tired, and he looks old, and he looks shabby.”

Brown might have had a better chance of surviving this scandal were his MPs behind him. But many are not, and haven’t been for months and longer. The erosion of Brown’s popularity accelerated during the fall of 2007, when he called off a planned election because of poor polling numbers. Brown, who became prime minister that June, following the resignation of Tony Blair, had not yet faced the British electorate as prime minister. His failure to do so reinforced his image of someone who is crippled by indecision, and earned him the moniker “The Ditherer.”

To make matters worse for Brown, he faced a Conservative Party renewed under the leadership of David Cameron, who broadened his party’s appeal by moderating its agenda, and because of his charisma and relative youth. Brown tried to depict his own notorious brooding persona as a virtue. He compared himself to Heathcliff, the troubled protagonist in Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights. British wits responded by dubbing 10 Downing Street “Dithering Heights.”

The knives have come out periodically since then. But rebellious MPs have never quite been able to muster the courage to bury them in the Prime Minister’s back. Instead, they plotted and planned, waiting for their moment. This month, they decided it had arrived.

Local elections in Britain are fought on party lines and tend to reflect national political fortunes. With local and European elections taking place this month, anti-Brown plotters suspected—rightly, it turns out—that the results would be dismal for Labour. Several ministers resigned to weaken Brown in advance of the election results. Brown then faced the additional humiliation of trying to reshuffle his cabinet with MPs who didn’t want the job.

The resignations continued this week. Environment Minister Jane Kennedy quit on Monday and declared she could no longer support Brown’s leadership. A draft email asking Brown to step aside was circulated with the understanding that it would not be sent unless 50 MPs attached their names to it. Other rebels pushed for a secret ballot. Their goal, one way or the other, was to force Brown to step down. His replacement would likely have been the current home secretary, Alan Johnson, who publicly defends Brown while holding out the possibility that he may one day run to succeed him.

The Labour mutiny, however, has failed. While David Cameron describes the sparring as a “slow dance of political death,” Brown proved to be more resilient than the plotters had anticipated. First he hung on by his compulsively chewed, bloody fingernails. Then he fought back and was finally able to put together a cabinet that, for now, will stand behind him. His critics retreated. It turns out they’re not so brave after all. They’ll plot a coup but don’t have the guts to carry one out.

Gordon Brown’s refusal to roll over is more than stubborn pride. He believes—with some justification—that Labour MPs want to sacrifice him to appease voters who are furious at them because of the expenses scandal. The rebel MPs, on the other hand, calculated that Labour’s electoral prospects are so dire that Brown should fall on his sword for the good of the party. Few expect Labour to win the next general election anymore, but some MPs fear that the defeat under Brown could doom the party for a generation or worse.

“Nobody is using the ‘Canada word’ yet, but anyone who knows anything about the history of Canada will know that it’s not inconceivable for a major political party to be reduced to a small number of seats,” says Travers, the LSE professor. Canada’s once powerful Progressive Conservative party won only two seats in the 1993 federal election and ceased to exist a decade later. “That is the kind of threat they all feel hovers over them.”

A poll this week suggested that Labour would do better in the next general election if Alan Johnson were leader rather than Gordon Brown. On the other hand, there is some logic in allowing Brown to lead Labour into the next election, due by next June. He’ll absorb a beating before stepping aside for a new leader, untainted by defeat.

Either way, Brown, though still standing, has been wounded beyond recovery. His role in reviving the Labour Party and helping lead it to three electoral triumphs has been overshadowed by everything that’s happened since. “It’s an unfair world,” says James Hanning, deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday. “He’s waited 10 years for the job, and was in many ways the architect of New Labour. He didn’t get much credit for it when Blair was in power, and now he’s inherited it when everyone is fed up. The pendulum does swing. You can say that’s unfair, but I’m not sure what Gordon Brown or anybody else can do to prevent that.”

It’s a story that’s almost tragic, in the real, theatrical sense of the term. While Brown likened himself to Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, British journalist Anne McElvoy sees parallels with another tormented character in British literature. “Now he resembles a political King Lear, a once towering figure on the blighted Labour landscape, the storms of the expenses crisis and economic turbulence howling around him,” she writes, and notes in his resolution a drift toward fatalism, as when Lear declared: “I am tied to the stake and must stand the course.”

Brown’s last stand does have a touch of noble defiance about it. But whether the storm buffeting Brown persists for days or months, it’s unlikely to end with another chance at redemption. Gordon Brown’s political career is ending. All that’s left for him to decide is how, and perhaps when, he faces his downfall.

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